Organic cotton is the go-to material for more sustainable brands, but is it that much better for people and the planet than conventional cotton?
Conventional cotton has a dark side
Cotton. You sleep on it at night, you dry yourself with it after a shower, and you’re probably even wearing it right now.
Despite being so common and so useful (it represents nearly half the fibre used in the textile industry), cotton has a dark side. The story of how cotton is grown, harvested, and produced has some nasty truths that impact the planet and its inhabitants.
Cotton is sometimes referred to as “white gold” because of how lucrative it is in some low- and middle-income (LMIC) nations like Uzbekistan. But how can we make sure the cotton we wear and use has cared for the earth, waterways, and the people who helped make our garments? Is organic cotton a more sustainable alternative, or is it a product of greenwashing?
The impacts of cotton production
Cotton has often been dubbed “the thirsty crop”, with sources claiming for years that it took 2,700 litres of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt—but it’s not that simple. Like most crops, cotton’s relationship with water is complex. While blue water (irrigation) consumption of cotton lint sits at a global average of about 1,900 litres per kilogram, that is only one factor and doesn’t draw any meaningful conclusion about the “thirstiness” of cotton. That said, cotton is grown in many water-stressed regions and can contribute to water management challenges, but with the right support for farmers, it can be done more sustainably.
The production of cotton requires large quantities of insecticides. Pesticides can infect local waterways, destroying the environment and harming animals. Pests continually build a resistance to the chemicals used, so new formulas are continuously developed, resulting in greater pesticide use and spiralling costs for farmers.
Pesticide poisoning isn’t limited to the environment. Food and water supplies can be easily contaminated from runoff, and it’s the local communities—sometimes already facing hardship—that suffer through disease, illness, and even congenital disabilities.
In many LMIC countries, cotton is hand-picked. In the past, countries like Uzbekistan often had children do this backbreaking work, taking them away from pursuing a life-changing education while running the risk of injury and illness. A recent ILO report outlines the drastic decrease of child and forced labour in Uzbekistan specifically from 2020, though there are still some concerns for working conditions.
Want to know more about cotton? Have a look at our “How Sustainable Is Cotton?” material guide
Is organic cotton a more ethical and sustainable solution?
To put it simply, organic cotton is a more sustainable solution. It is grown without pesticides from seeds that have not been genetically modified.
Organic farming practices avoid using harmful chemicals while aiming for environmental sustainability and the use of fewer resources. Chemical-free agricultural land even stays fertile much longer than land hampered by the constant use of pesticides, so organic cotton farmers generally have a longer cotton commodity lifespan than otherwise.
The benefits are clear: using fewer pesticides means that workers’ health improves dramatically, communities can live in relative health with access to clean water and food supplies, and the land has a longer lifespan because chemicals are not damaging it. It also means the clothes we wear are safer for us since they don’t contain the myriad of chemicals often found in conventional cotton garments.
On the social front, organisations such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) have been working to ensure organic textiles also enhance (or at least do not harm) people’s lives. GOTS covers the processing, manufacturing, packaging, labelling, trading, and distributing of textiles, ensuring that environmental and social standards—such as safe and hygienic working conditions, no workplace discrimination, and fair pay rates—are respected. Also, look out for Fair Trade certification to ensure workers are treated well along the supply chain.
By seeking out organic cotton alternatives to everyday products, you can quickly act ethically and sustainably by encouraging cotton grown without pesticides and reducing harm for the planet and people.
A couple of things to note
We know that consumers are increasingly looking for better products for themselves and the environment. The search for “organic” products began with food and has since reached the fashion industry. More and more brands are starting to offer organic options to their consumers (like Primark, which launched its first organic denim jeans in 2019).
However, organic cotton production is not perfect. Because organic cotton yields fewer fibres than GMO cotton, it requires more plants and more land to produce.
Plus, before the organic fibre is turned into your favourite t-shirt, it requires lots of processing and dyeing, which can also be very chemically intensive. Unless the garment is GOTS certified, it can be hard to tell if it has been coloured using safe or low impact colourants.
Nowadays, using the word “organic” can be incredibly persuasive. Beware of greenwashing and fashion brands claiming to do better when they are still not addressing other vital issues.
But don’t get us wrong: if sustainably and ethically produced, organic cotton is a fantastic alternative to conventional cotton.
Where to buy organic cotton
As always, if you want to have a more positive impact on people and the planet, we recommend buying less, choosing well, and making it last. If you are in the market for new clothes, we’ve also listed a few of our favourite organic brands below: